You'll Bee Shocked: "The Cyprian Bees" (1926) by Anthony Wynne

Dr. Robert McNair Wilson was a Scottish-born physician and surgeon, who was the House Surgeon of Glasgow Western Infirmary, Consulting Physician of the Ministry of Pensions and editor of Oxford Medical Publications, but more importantly, Wilson was the author of twenty-seven mystery novels – published as by "Anthony Wynne." A penname closely associated with the impossible crime sub-genre with twenty-one novels and two short stories listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Mysteries (1991).

Unfortunately, the lion's share of his work are rare, out-of-print and often very hard-to-get titles. Only two or three of them are relatively easy to get your hands on.

British Library Crime Classics reissued The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) in 2015 under its alternative title, Murder of a Lady, and there appears to be a print-on-demand edition available of The Red Scar (1928). The last item that's not too hard to find is a very well-known, often anthologized short story.

"The Cyprian Bees" originally appeared in the February 6, 1926, issue of Flynn's and was first collected in Wynne's only collection of short stories, entitled Sinners Go Secretly (1927), but has appeared in many anthologies ever since – such as Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (1928), The Omnibus of Crime (1929) and Great Detective Stories About Doctors (1965). Ellery Queen even included the story in their landmark anthology 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941 (1943).

A hefty tome that happened to be on my shelves and thought a review of Wynne's "The Cyprian Bees" would make for a nice extension of my previous blog-post, which discussed Francis Vivian's bee-themed The Singing Masons (1950).

"The Cyprian Bees" is not one of Wynne's numerous locked room tales, but still has his long-time series-detective, Dr. Eustace Hailey, who's a Harley Street nerve specialist and a dilettante in the detection of the crime. An unofficial consulting detective with a predilection for impossible crimes, bizarre murders and abnormal criminals. This story has not, as said above, a locked room puzzle, but the plot has a bizarre murder and abnormal murderer. Or, at least, the plot the murderer had hatched qualifies as something out of the ordinary.

Inspector Biles, of Scotland Yard, came to Harley Street to consult Dr. Hailey and brought with him "a small wooden box" that had been found by a police constable in a gutter in Piccadilly Circus. There are three live bees in the box of a special breed, the Cyprian, described by experts as "notoriously very ill-natured" and a fourth specimen had been found inside a parked car, in Leicester Square, with a dead woman behind the wheel – who had been "stung by a bee just before her death." So what's the connection between the dead woman, the bees and an apparently harmless bee-sting?

Dr. Hailey right away identifies the death of the woman as "a clear case of anaphylaxis" and explains to Biles how a medically-minded killer, like a physician, could induce a fatal, allergic reaction with doctored inoculations. But he also gets to play psycho-analyst when visiting the victim's apartment and forms "a mental picture" of the dead woman. Or when he gives a pyschological interpretation to a shop receipt for a copy of The Love Songs of Robert Browning.

However, "The Cyprian Bees" is more a story of crime than detection. The murderer only makes an on-stage appearance after being identified by Dr. Hailey, who correctly pegged this character as a doctor and bee-keeper, which did provide the story with harrowing ending when the murderer attempts to execute the second phase of his murderous plan. Only to be foiled by the quick-acting Dr. Hailey.

I think Wynne wrote "The Cyprian Bees" with Conan Doyle in mind, because certain plot elements are somewhat reminiscent of such stories as "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892) and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" (His Last Bow, 1910). Let's not forgot Holmes retired from detective work to become a bee-keeper.

So not the all-time classic I hoped from a frequently anthologized story, but not too bad for a throwback, or homage, to such Sherlock Holmes stories as "The Speckled Band." The only genuine problem here, one commonly found in Wynne's detective-fiction, is that the medical or psychological aspects can be a bit dated or inaccurate, but even that's in keeping with such stories as "The Speckled Band." My advice is to read this story as a homage to Doyle and Holmes.


The Singing Masons (1950) by Francis Vivian

Last week, I reviewed at The Elusive Bowman (1951) by Francis Vivian, an obscure, long-lost mystery novelist, who has been resuscitated from literary oblivion with the imminent republication of his entire Inspector Gordon Knollis series on October 1, 2018 – courtesy of Dean Street Press. The Elusive Bowman was a well-written, richly plotted detective novel and promised to return to Vivian before too long. And then our in-house genre-historian, Curt Evans, wrote an enticing blog-post on The Singing Masons (1950). So I decided to make that one my next read.

The Singing Masons is the sixth title in the series and has a pleasantly involved plot as intricately complex as the diurnal flight patterns of honey bees.

Samuel Heatherington is a retired carpenter and "a bee-master of the old school," who has worked with bees since he was twelve and what he didn't know about them wasn't worth knowing, which brought even the most reputed bee-experts to his cottage garden in the village of Newbourne – to "sit and sip the nectar of experience." One day, a new queen had emerged in one of his twelve hives to take over the duties of the old queen and a hum of bees began to swarm to look for a new hive. Old Heatherington tracks the swarm back to the orchard garden of an unoccupied cottage.

The cottage used to belong to the late Mrs. Roxana Doughty, a writer of romantic novels, who disliked bees and stuck to the opinion that they were "nasty stinging insects." So the old bee-keeper is surprised to find an empty hive standing on two flagstones at the far end of the cottage and his swarm had began to occupy it.

However, the spot is too damp for the bees and he decides to give this swarm to two of his young friends, Philip and Georgie Maynard, who had a spell of bad luck recently when they lost of all their fruit trees, bees, a honey house and even their unborn baby – all of which play a vital part in the plot. The Maynards arrive at the cottage to take the swarm back home when the possibility of a well below the flagstones is mentioned, which would explain the dampness of the spot. Georgie is curious to learn whether or not the hive is standing on the covered mouth of an abandoned, long-since forgotten well.

So they decide to humor her, but, when they move the flagstones, they notice "a queer smell." When a torch-light is shone down the depths of the well, they can discern a dark, misshapen form "huddled against the brickwork." The form turns out to be the decomposed body of Georgie's missing cousin, Gerald "Jerry" Batley. A water-damaged canister of cyanide is found in his pocket.

Detective-Inspector Gordon Knollis, of Scotland Yard, is placed in charge of the investigation and together with a local policeman, Inspector Wilson, has to find his way out of a case that closely resembles a maze-like honeycomb.

Batley was a good looking, charming and ambitious young man who had been engaged to the daughter of "the town's star lawyer," Daphne Moreland, but only wanted to marry her in order to get access to her family coffers – or, as he called it, "stinging Daph and the Moreland old oak chest." On top of that, Batley had been an incorrigible philanderer who has had an extramarital with Philip Maynard's married sister, Bernice Lanson. Even his own cousin had not been exempt from his advances. However, Georgie had rejected him with violence and this humiliation had severely wounded his "emotionally adolescent" pride. And this rejection probably prompted him to part Philip and Georgie by ruining them.

Knollis not only suspects that he had a hand in their recent misfortunes, but also had murder in his heart and the only thing that had stopped him was getting murdered. But who had put him in the well?

I've only read two of Vivian's detective novels, The Singing Masons and The Elusive Bowman, but he appears to have been fond of the detective story format Agatha Christie employed in Cards on the Table (1936). There are only a couple of suspects with closely-linked motives, but everything is complicated by their movements, false or incomplete statements and their alibis. One alibi, in particular, deserves to be spotlighted: a suspect claims to have been at the cinema to attend a screening of Robert Montgomery's film adaption of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake (1943), but Knollis destroys this alibi with the help of a movie review from a magazine. I believe Christopher Bush, an alibi artisan who tried to emulate the hardboiled style (e.g. The Case of the Amateur Actor, 1955), would certainly have appreciated this little alibi-trick.

Then there are the bee-themed clues and red herrings, such as a dead bee in victim's apartment or where the hive in the orchard came from and who took it away after the murder, but, most fascinatingly, are the long-abandoned queen-rearing apiaries hidden in the woods – which used to belong to Batley's father. And these deserted hives have their own role to play in the tragedy.

A seasoned mystery reader will probably instinctively glance at the murderer, but this will only give you an incomplete solution. Even with the tight circle of suspects, Vivian forces the reader to hesitate between suspects and consider alternative explanations or combinations. So this makes The Singing Masons a more successful detective story than The Elusive Bowman, which is helped by the fact that Knollis came across here as far more rounded-character and has, as Curt aptly described it, "an unexpectedly hard-hitting conclusion." A genuinely sad ending punctuated by Knollis grimly telling Wilson, "I'm not God."

The Singing Masons is an absolute honey of a detective story and precisely what I needed after my previous disappointing reads. A highly recommendable mystery that should be your first stop in the series.


Some Die Hard (1979) by Stephen Mertz

Stephen Mertz is an American writer of popular commercial novels in a wide range of genres, such as action thrillers, supernatural suspense and dark noir, but embarked on his career as a full-fledged novelist with a cerebral, hardboiled locked room mystery titled Some Die Hard (1979) – originally published as by "Stephen Brett." The name was a tip of the fedora to "Brett Halliday," a pseudonym of Davis Dresser, who created the long-lived Michael Shayne series. Because in the years preceding the publication of his debut novel, Mertz has been selling short stories to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. So I thought that was a nice little acknowledgment. 

Some Die Hard is your typical hardboiled private-eye novel written in a similar vein as Manly Wade Wellman's Find My Killer (1947), Donald E. Westlake's Murder Among Children (1967) and Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981).

All four of these hardboiled stories have a traditional locked room puzzle at the core of their plots that are cracked by the quintessential, tough-guy private eyes and this unlikely combination actually works. Well, usually, anyway. You sometimes run into duds, like Henry Kane's The Narrowing Lust (1955) or Eric Keith's Nine Man's Murder (2011), but normally, they tend to gel together and often are quite entertaining reads – most notably the impossible crime titles from Pronzini's Nameless Detective series (e.g. Scattershot, 1982). On which side does this particular hardboiled locked room yarn fall? Let's find out. 

"Rock" Dugan earned his nickname during his days as a Hollywood stuntman, specialized in "tricks that would've racked up most people," but he always walked away from the set in one piece. During the early seventies, Dugan settled down in Denver, Colorado, and drew on his military intelligence background to apply for a private-investigators license.

On an interesting side note, Dugan shares a passion for crime-fiction with Pronzini's Nameless Detective and Some Die Hard opens with Dugan reading a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner. The book even plays a (minor) part in setting up the plot. 

Some Die Hard opens shortly after Dugan performed his part in a routine case for Lewellyn Sugan in Langdon Springs, Colorado, hopped on a bus back to Denver and a nervous, unsettled man takes the seat next to him, but eased the man out of his mind with the help of Perry Mason – until they arrived at the bus depot. The wiry man had become "a tensed bundle of nerves," ready to explode, which happens when they spot two bruisers at the depot who had been obviously waiting for the nervous man. He panics, bolts and, scared and careless, gets himself killed when he's hit by a taxicab. And that would have been the end of it. However, Dugan finds an envelope "nestled between the pages of Perry Mason" and had evidently been stashed there by his now "erstwhile traveling partner."

The dead man turns out to be one Stanley Hochman, a private-eye, who had been hired by Susan Court to get copies of the I.O.U's from her younger, good-for-nothing brother, Tom, to a man named Murray Zucco. A big-shot who runs a gambling club and her brother is in debt to him to the tune of fifteen thousand dollars. Tom promised Zucco to payoff his debt from the money he'll inherit from his terminally-ill father, Carlander Court, but his father recently had a change of mind. And is on the verge of altering his will one last time. A new will cutting out Tom and giving practically everything to his sister, Susan. So this gives Tom and Zucco a very strong incentive to help along the inevitable.

Dugan has a one-on-one talk with the dying millionaire and, as a mystery reader, is reminded of Philip Marlowe's meeting with General Sternwood in the hothouse at the beginning of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) – concluding that Court was the General Sternwood to his Philip Marlowe. Carlander Court offered Dugan twenty thousand dollar retainer to find his would-be murderer in case he died before the day ended and was unable to sign his new will. A retainer he had to work for only a short time later when his provisional client is murdered under impossible circumstances.

Court was "a heavyset, hearty and robust-looking man," full of life, but had been suffering his fatal illness in private and outwardly enjoyed as much of life as possible. One way he was going to enjoy life was with the acquisition of a private, single-seater sailplane.

A sleek, stiletto-thin reddish orange craft attached with a pull-rope to a jeep that carried Court to "the open, cloudless sky above" and people on the ground even see him wave at them at one point, but suddenly, the glider makes a very rough landing and when they reach the craft they find a dead man inside – a large hunting knife had been rammed into his gut. State Crime Lab inspected the glider, inside out, but they were unable to discover any mechanical device that could have jammed that knife into Court. So how did the murderer managed to stab a man who had been flying solo in a glider?

This impossible situation is, as Dugan, describes it "a variation on the old locked room puzzles of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr."

However, you should not get your hopes up, because this intriguing and promising impossible situation comes with a hackneyed, time-worn and third-rate solution that strikes a jarringly false note in an otherwise well-written, nicely paced private-eye story. Robert Adey defined the discrepancy between the setup and solution perfectly in Locked Room Murders (1991) when describing the murder as a "neatly posed impossible crime" with "a solution scarcely up to the standard of a pre-World War I boy's story." Yes, the explanation for this fascinating impossibility is really that bad and dated.

So, before churning out the closer of this review, allow me to live up to my reputation as the resident locked room expert fanboy expert and throw out an alternative solution. Only part of the setup that has to be altered is the cause of death.

In my situation, Court is murdered with a quick-acting poison (take your pick) instead of being stabbed with a hunting knife. It was mentioned in the story Court refused to take any medication, which is actually a clue to the awful explanation, but here the murderer could have convinced him that, considering his declining health, it would be advisable to take medication before getting airborne – if only a pill to prevent possible airsickness. So the murderer gives Court a poisonous gelatin-capsule that dissolves within 10-20 minutes and instructs him to swallow it a couple of minutes before the glider is dragged into the air by the jeep. The murderer then slips a phial, or box, of the deadly, fast-acting poison (this time not in gelatin-capsules) in the victim's pocket or places it inside the glider. And the end result? On the surface, it would appear as if a terminally-ill man went out on his own terms by taking poison when he was peacefully gliding through the sky in a sailplane. A beautiful oblivion! 

You could make Dugan suspect murder in this scenario for exactly the same reason as in the original one: a lack of fingerprints on the murder weapon. Only here the phial or box of poison would be missing the victim's fingerprints instead of a knife-handle.

Anyway, as noted here above, Some Die Hard is a well-written, nicely paced hardboiled detective story with a plot that has more to offer than just a horrendously botched impossible crime. Dugan has to contend with Zucco and his lackey, a corrupt chief of police, as well with the extremely spoiled, short-tempered and even dangerous Tom Court – who may have already killed someone in a parking-lot brawl. There are a number of physical altercations, one of them between the sheets with Susan, and more than once has to stare down a barrel of gun. All of this culminates with Dugan confronting the murderer in an open field, where the glider crashed, which ends in a truly tragic shootout. 

Some Die Hard is very much in line with the earlier mentioned hardboiled (locked room) novels by Pronzini, Wellman and Westlake, but you should dial your expectations for the impossible murder all the way back to zero. Or else you're going to end up extremely disappointed. So, a long story short, this story was the proverbial mixed bag of tricks and suspect less demanding readers, where the locked room story is concerned, will probably get more out of this story than I did.

Finally, Some Die Hard has been reissued by Rough Edges Press and this new edition has a must-read afterword from Mertz, titled "From the Manor Torn," which details the ordeal he went through with the original publisher of the book. Manor Books was "a low-end New York publishing house in the 1970s" operated by "a pack of thieving scuzzballs." An outfit who scoured for writers "who were good enough to be published," but who wouldn't have "the clout or the resources to collect the money owed them." I like these bits of obscure, long-forgotten history and its inclusion here made up a little bit for the uneven story preceding.

Anyway, I hopefully have found a really good detective story for my next read that make up for this mixed bag of tricks and my previous disappointment. So, once again, stay tuned!


Vegetable Duck (1944) by John Rhode

John Rhode's Vegetable Duck (1944) is the fortieth title in his lengthy, long-running Dr. Lancelot Priestley series and has been praised by many readers as a particularly clever, crisply written detective story with an ingeniously contrived method for poisoning a piece of vegetable marrow – making it a veritable chef-d'oeuvre of the series. So imagine my disappointment when this supposedly five-star mystery turned out to be a pretty average, middle-of-the-Rhode entry in the series.

I've only read an infinitesimal fraction of the Dr. Priestley series, but Vegetable Duck is a second-tier title compared to The House on Tollard Ridge (1929), Death on the Board (1937), Invisible Weapons (1938), Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943) and Death in Harley Street (1946). However, my dissatisfaction has more to do with the excessive, undeserved praise than with the story's inability to live up to it. But it has negatively affected my reading.

So this is very likely going to be a short, poorly written and disappointing review, because I have not all that much to say about it. The reader has been warned.

Vegetable Duck begins with the return of Charles Fransham to his London service flat, Mundesley Mansions, who, earlier in the evening, had been lured away from his diner by a mysterious, unaccountable telephone call – leaving his wife to enjoy a dish of vegetable duck with potatoes, gravy and cheese. And in case you're wondering, vegetable duck is "a marrow, not too big, stuffed with minced meat and herbs" and "baked whole." A dish that was not only a personal favorite of Letitia Fransham, but also turned out to be her last meal. She's found in the dinning-room, unresponsive, when her husband returns. The doctor who examined the body suspects Mrs. Fransham had died from "the effects of a powerful dose of some vegetable alkaloid" and alerted the authorities.

Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, of Scotland Yard, is placed in charge of the case and initially focuses his attention on the husband as the primary suspect.

Charles Fransham tells Waghorn he had been called by a man, named Corpusty, who introduced himself as an employee of a private-detective he had hired and wanted to meet him immediately, because there had been developments in the case – only Corpusty never turned up. And when Fransham returned home, he found the body of his wife in the dinning-room. Yes, this is very reminiscent of the murder of Julia Wallace in 1931 and mentioned a number of times throughout the story. The Wallace Case had captivated the imagination of many mystery writers of the time and Dorothy L. Sayers even dedicated a chapter to the case in The Anatomy of Murder (1936).

Fransham had hired a private-detective because he has been receiving anonymous letters with shotguns drawings on them. An obvious reference to a fatal shooting incident that had killed his brother-in-law, but there are many people, such as the now retired Superintendent Hanslet, who are convinced Fransham had shot his brother-in-law. Simply made it look like an unfortunate hunting accident.

So there are more than enough potential leads to follow up on and then there's the genuinely clever method for introducing a lethal dose of digitalis into a piece of vegetable marrow. A problem clevery explained by Dr. Lancelot Priestley over the dinner-table and also solved the puzzling problem of damp, water-damaged envelope. Sadly, Dr. Priestley is only peripherally involved and acts more as a soundboard to Waghorn than as a armchair detective. Nonetheless, the poisoning method Dr. Priestley laid bare was as cunning and inventive as the unusual poisoning method from Gladys Mitchell's little-known The Man Who Grew Tomatoes (1959). But the poisoning of the vegetable marrow also happened to be the only aspect of the plot that lifted the story, ever so slightly, above average. Only very briefly.

Vegetable Duck has some good detective work with several interesting plot-threads, but, as a whole, the story has nothing to justify the inordinate amount of praise it has received over the decades, because the murderer really sticks out and can easily be pointed out the moment this character enters the story – becoming even harder to ignore when a second murder is committed. While the murderer's identity is obvious, you're not given sufficient clues to work out any of the (other) problems for yourself. So, even as a howdunit, you can hardly label it as a perfect, five-star mystery novel.

Admittedly, the book was not as poorly plotted as The Milk-Churn Murder (1935) or as dull a story as Death Leaves No Card (1940), but neither was it anywhere near as good or brilliant as any of the earlier mentioned titles. My unmet expectations killed any possible enjoyment I might otherwise have gotten out of it. Not entirely fair, I know, but I went into the story expecting a monument of the series. Evidently, this happened not to be the case.

Anyway, I have complained and rambled on long enough. Vegetable Duck didn't work out for me, but there's more where that book came from and will simply lift another John Rhode title from the big pile in the coming weeks or months. The Robthorne Mystery (1934), Mystery at Olympia (1935), Death at Breakfast (1936) and Nothing But the Truth (1947) all look very promising. So stay tuned.


The Elusive Bowman (1951) by Francis Vivian

Athur Ernest Ashley was a British novelist, who started out as a painter and decorator, but turned to writing popular fiction in the 1930s and balanced his literary career with being a circuit lecturer on a variety of topics "ranging from crime to bee-keeping" – two subjects he would later integrate into a detective novel (The Singing Masons, 1950). Ashley had furthermore worked as an assistant editor at The Nottinghamshire Free Press and was one of the founding member of the Nottingham Writers' Club. But what we are interested in here is his two-decade long stint as a now long-forgotten mystery novelist.

Ashley wrote under the name of "Francis Vivian" and produced nearly twenty detective novels in as many years.

One of his recurring series-detectives was Inspector Gordon Knollis, of Scotland Yard, who purportedly "never picked up an undisclosed clue" and appeared in ten mystery novels that were published between 1941 and 1956, which have never been reissued since their original publication – until now. Dean Street Press has the entire series scheduled for republication on October 1, 2018, and they kindly send me a sample of some of these upcoming releases.

The Elusive Bowman (1951) is the seventh entry in the series and has a plot, as the book-title suggests, which draws on the noble, time-honored sport of archery. I would call the book a better and stronger archery-themed detective story than either John Bude's The Cheltenham Square Murder (1937) or Leo Bruce's Death at St. Asprey's School (1967).

Michael Maddison is a robust, healthy man of thirty-five who, unaccountably, had buried himself in a small, unassuming place called Teverby-on-the-Hill. There he acquired the tenancy of the village pub, Fox Inn, which he turned into something more than a watering-hole for villagers and commercial travelers, because Maddison believed pubs should be "centres of communal life" and "homes-from-home for travellers." Something he succeeded in admirably. The remodeled place provides a club-home to the Teverby Bowmen. An archery club boasting twenty-six shooting members under the leadership of a passionate archer, Captain Saunders.

So everything appears to be quiet, peaceful and even prosperous in Teverby-on-the-Hill, but the reader soon learns there's a dark side residing behind the genial facade of Maddison.

Maddison has moved to Teverby-on-the-Hill together with his unmarried sister, Rhoda, and his young niece and ward, Gillian, who had been orphaned in the London blitz, but Maddison reveals he has a very private reason for preventing them to get married – even saying he would go as far to commit murder to prevent it. Or undoing it. He even hits Rhoda with his fist "clean on the side of the jaw" when he caught her eavesdropping. Nevertheless, Rhoda and Gillian intend to marry Captain Saunders. So they begin to think about murdering Maddison. And they're not the only one.

One evening, Captain Saunders brought two hunting arrows to the Fox, a bodkin-pointed one and a broadhead, capable of "piercing armour-steel from a respectable distance." Major Oliver had seen hunting bows in Mongolia that could "kill a yak at forty yards" and did believe there were modern, Western bows and arrows that could do that. So Captain Saunders brought two arrows to show him, but they go missing by the end of the evening and turn up again the following day when Maddison is found in the recently remodeled and enlarged cellar of the Fox – a green and white fletched arrow sticking from his rib. A second arrow, similarly fletched, was deeply embedded in the door of a cupboard.

The Chief Constable decides to ask Scotland Yard for assistance and they immediately dispatch Inspector Gordon Knollis to the village.

A map of Teverby-on-the-Hill

Inspector Knollis is assisted by Inspector Lancaster, of the Maunsby police, who'll probably endear himself to a lot of long-time mystery readers, because he constantly forces Knollis to explain his deductions. A fun, little rib-poke at the detectives who love to mutter cryptic remarks and keep their thoughts to themselves. However, you should not assume Lancaster is simply a plot-device that lays bare the detective's thought process to reader. One of the chapters, entitled "The Deductions of Lancaster," has him deducing the hiding place of "seven prettily feathered arrows" and Knollis had completely overlooked this place.

So they make a pretty good investigative team and are exactly the kind of policemen needed to disentangle this complicated mesh of deception and contradictions.

There are only four suspects, Rhoda, Gillian, Capt. Saunders and Maj. Oliver, who have closely-linked motives and suspiciously moved around the Fox at the time of the murder, which effectively muddled the water – keeping the reader moving between (combinations of) suspects. A problem further complicated by a hidden blackmail plot and the all-important questions why Maddison had converted the cellar for private archery practice and whom he had been plotting to kill. My only complaint is that the red herrings are so thick that they obscured the genuine clues and this somewhat diminished the fair play aspect of the plot.

On a whole, The Elusive Bowman is a well-written, straightforward detective novel with a good, but relatively simple, plot stuffed with clues and red herrings complicated by the cross-actions of the small cast of characters. So a good and solid introduction to the work of a long overlooked mystery writer, who reminded me of Francis Duncan, but without frills and tighter plots. I'll definitely be coming back to Francis Vivian for a second serving.


Murder Behind Locked Doors (1988) by Ellen Godfrey

Ellen Godfrey is an American-born entrepreneur, living in Canada, who has a decades-long resume in business and technology, such as co-founding a software company in the 1970s, which she drew upon for a short-lived series of mystery novels about a corporate headhunter, Jane Tregar – who appeared in only two books. The first one in the series is the captivatingly titled Murder Behind Locked Doors (1988) and ended four years later with Georgia Disappeared (1992).

I don't believe regular readers of my blog need an explanation as to what and which book-title specifically attracted my attention. I think it's pretty obvious at this point. So let's jump straight into the story.

The setting of Murder Behind Locked Doors is a Toronto-based data-processing and software company, Brian Taylor Systems (BTS), which has been a trail-blazer as a technological innovator and is doing eight figures a year, but BTS stock takes a dip and rumors begin to fly when a key-figure in the company's top hierarchy unexpectedly died. Vice-President of Finance, Gary Levin, had been the financial guru of the company and, one evening, died of apparently natural causes in the computer room.

Jane Tregar is a headhunter who finds top executives to fill important, high-powered positions and is hired by CEO Brian Taylor to find him a new VP of Finance, but finding a replacement for the talented Levin turns out to be more difficult than expected – one of the reasons being the rumors that Levin had been murdered. Several of his colleagues believe he had been cleverly put out of the way. However, they're baffled as to how this could been accomplished, because Levin's body had been found in the proverbial, but up-to-date, locked room.

On the night of his death, Levin had been staying late and the computer he had been working on had crashed. So he had to go to the computer room to boot it up again and there his body was found the following morning, but the fact that he was found in the locked computer room seems to preclude the possibility of murder, because the room was protected by a (locked) steel door with an intruder-alarm and glass, passcard-controlled door – card-system log for that night shows only Levin had entered the computer room. And nobody had left the room after he had went in. Something that was withheld from the police is that a printed message had been found in the room saying, "that will teach the son of a bitch."

There are a handful of people, all of them BTS executives, who have a superpassword that allowed them to access every nook and cranny of their computer system: Martha Gruen (HR), Tom Henege (sales/marketing), Robert McDonnell (accountant), Martin Kaplan (customer support) and Taylor (CEO). So they all could have been aware what Levin had been working on. However, they also have iron-clad alibis.

Tregar comes to the conclusion that she has to find out what's going on behind the scenes of BTS, because it would be unethical to place an innocent person in the dead man's position without knowing if the replacement is in any possible danger of being murdered. After all, Levin could simply have been killed for what he had been doing as the VP of Finance. She soon learns that not everyone has been telling her the full story and a lot rumors are flying around about potential mergers, hostile takeovers and corporate business tactics like a greenmail plot – littered with phrases like white-knights and golden parachutes. Interestingly, there are excerpts throughout the story from The Toronto Daily News reporting on the business end of the case and how the stock-market is reacting to the death of Levin. And to the rumors of a possible merger or takeover. Those articles were a nice touch to the overall plot.

So, all of this made for a fascinating glance at a leading data-and software company that stood at the cradle of the modern-day computer era and the business end of the plot was well-conceived, which together with the locked room trick is strongest aspect of the story, but there's also a downside – namely the atrocious characterization. Godfrey is very much from the contemporary school of characterization.

A school of thought dictating that you can only have fully-rounded and relatable characters when they're portrayed as troubled, insecure and broken down people with more emotional baggage than a psychiatrist's file-cabinet. Jane Tregar is a text-book example of this. She had been brought up in a household where money had been tight and has been divorced from her much older, and very rich, husband who took their children with him. And she barely put up a fight to keep them. Later on in the story, the sister of a friend committed suicide and the reader is told that they came from a dysfunctional family with an abusive father.

None of this has any relevance, whatsoever, to the plot and reminded me why I prefer the traditional, plot-oriented detective stories from days gone by.

Regardless, Murder Behind Locked Doors still has a pretty good, adequately clued and traditionally-styled plot with an excellent impossible crime. A clever, multi-layered locked room trick that worked on all levels. There are technological and scientific aspects of the trick concerning the crashed computer and cause of death, but the linchpin of the trick are the personalities of the victim and murderer – who left the final execution of the locked room up to fate. Somehow, this really helped make the trick as believable as possible. I really liked the end result.

I have read locked room novels from this period before, such as Kate Wilhelm's Smart House (1989) and Richard Hunt's Deadlocked (1994), which attempted to use modern, sometimes SF-like, technology to create an entirely new kind of locked room scenarios. But they all failed. Godfrey deserves praise for actually making this work and craft a locked room problem, using science and technology, that could have been imagined by John Russell Fearn or Arthur Porges.

So, all in all, Murder Behind Locked Doors has a well worked-out plot with an interesting background that looks at big business and a deviously clever locked room trick, but the overall product is marred by the dreary, modern idea of characterization. However, if you can look pass that dreariness, you'll find a far better than average (modern) crime novel in Murder Behind Locked Doors.


The Locked Safe Mystery (1954) by Norvin Pallas

Norvin Pallas was "a free-lance writer" whose "day job was part-time accounting" and is remembered today, if he's remembered at all, as the author of a series of intelligently written, well-characterized juvenile mysteries with "complicated, logical, adult-style plots" starring a high-school newspaper reporter, Ted Wilford – inviting comparisons with the Ken Holt series by Bruce Campbell. Campbell and Pallas not only had similar series-detectives, but also had "a high regard for children" and "their thinking abilities."

Pallas knew he was writing for children and, to use his own words, "respected them for it" and did not talk down to them. On the contrary, Pallas appeared to have treated his readership as his intellectual equals and that might have actually been a serious flaw in the series.

Mathematical puzzles, games and codes were Pallas' "consuming interest," writing such non-fiction books as Calculator Puzzles, Tricks and Games (1976) and Games with Codes and Ciphers (1994), which is reflected in the complicated plots of the Ted Wilford stories – designed like puzzles with "clues and bits of germane information." Apparently, even older readers were not always successful in anticipating the solution. This, coupled with a complete lack of action and excitement, probably made this series a little bit too dry and cerebral for its intended audience.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I learned of this series and one title, in particular, beckoned for my attention. You can probably deduce from the post-title what attracted my attention. What can I say? I have an unhealthy love for locked room puzzles.

But before I take a look at the book in question, I would like to point out that all of the background information was scraped from a single (PDF) article, "A Dark Horse Series: The Ted Wilfords," written by David M. Baumann and is perhaps the only credible, in-depth source of information to be found on this series – discussing the author, characters, plots and honestly assessing the strength and weaknesses of the series. A really well-written, informative and honest article. It's definitely worth a read if you're interested in juvenile detective fiction and this obscure series in particular.

The Locked Safe Mystery (1954) is the second title in a series of fifteen books, beginning with The Secret of Thunder Mountain (1951) and concluding with The Greenhouse Mystery (1967), which follows the exploits of a high-school student, Ted Wilford. Reportedly, he "grows older from one book to the next" and graduates from high-school halfway through the series with the last books taking place during his college years. This second title shows him taking his first, tentative steps over the threshold of adulthood and gets taste of the perks, and challenges, that come with the responsibilities trust upon him as a young adult.

The story begins with Ted receiving some bad news from his doctor: a nagging ankle injury makes him ineligible for the high-school football team, because his ankle is still vulnerable and not ready for the strain of a football game. So this naturally puts a damper on his mood. However, the Forestdale High School newspaper, the Statesman, unanimously elects him as their new editor-in-chief and his hometown's twice-weekly paper, The Town Crier, took him on as a special high-school correspondent – following in the footsteps of his older brother, Ronald Wilford. Over the course of the story, Ted learns (as editor) that you can't please anyone and (as a cub-correspondent) that you have to begin at the bottom of the ladder. But this is not all he has on his plate.

Ted is asked by the new assistant principle of the school, Mr. Clayton, to assist him with the annual charity fund raiser during the Fall Festival and the event netted a sum of $13,000, which is placed in a strong-box and locked inside the school safe. However, the money disappears from the safe and only three people knew the combination: the high-school principle, the assistant principle and a secretary, but only one of those three people, namely Mr. Clayton, has inexplicably disappeared. Ted is the only person who really believes him to be innocent and writes an editorial, accidentally published in The Town Crier, making a case in his favor. Something, in itself, that will prove to be valuable lesson to the aspiring newspaper reporter.

So the problem of the theft of the charity money from the locked school safe, if you believe those three aforementioned people to be innocent, presents the reader with a quasi-impossible situation.

Unfortunately, this problem is resolved during a dry-as-dust courtroom scene when a lock-expert gives a technical explanation for this problem that you expect to find in Freeman Wills Crofts or John Rhode. You can hardly blame children, or even (older) teenagers, for not figuring out this trick. Which is a pity, since I can think of at least two tricks this particular thief could have used to open the safe. On the upside, this explanation revealed a second layer to the problem that's a genuine, full-fledged locked room puzzle. I can't say too much about it, because this development comes very late in the story, but the locked room trick was decent enough. A trick of the same caliber as Bruce Campbell's The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959) and William Arden's The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972).

Well, this is all I can really say about The Locked Safe Mystery. The story is skillfully-written, cleverly plotted and realistically presented, especially the life and personality of the main-character, Ted, but the pace is incredibly slow and the story is completely devoid of action or excitement – actually making this some kind of crossword puzzle in prose form. Personally, as a plot-oriented mystery reader, I didn't mind too much, but I have to wonder how this approach was able to attract younger readers.

I have mentioned above how this series has been compared to the Ken Holt series, but Sam and Beryl Epstein, who were behind the Campbell penname, were far more successful in balancing intelligent plotting with exciting writing and more realistic characterization to craft engaging detective stories (e.g. The Clue of the Phantom Car, 1953). The Locked Safe Mystery had intellect and a heart that was in the right place, but had no energy and was missing that all-important spark of life. Something that's absolutely necessary in a juvenile detective novel.

Still, this was an interesting read and is yet another impossible crime novel from the juvenile corner of the genre that has been overlooked by such locked room experts as Robert Adey. I hope John Pugmire, of LRI, adds them to the forthcoming supplemental edition of Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) in 2019. They deserve to be finally acknowledged.